Observations

A career crossroads

“The time has come”, the walrus said, “to talk of many things.” Perhaps not shoes or ships or sealing wax, or even cabbages or kings. But of teaching, of SLT, or perhaps another path altogether. There have been some thoughts going around in my head for some time now, but I just don’t know what to do with them.

I’ve been teaching now for 15 years, and all that time in the same school. I’m now on my third headteacher (plus an Acting Headteacher for a short while) and am one of the longer serving members of staff. Ours is a wonderful school. It seems that when teachers join us, we stay. Fantastic for the school, not so fantastic for career development. I know I should have moved on many, many years ago. I’ve reached the top of the pay scale with only one school under my belt. Am I employable elsewhere? I’m expensive and, technically speaking, inexperienced. As I’ve said before, I’ve had a wide range of roles within the school, but still all within the same four walls. I’ve reached a point in my career now where I ought to move on. But what to? I love my school, and there is no way I am going to leave for just any old job. Senior management? Quite possibly. I like the sound of being a Deputy Head. But, while I am good at my job, there’s that old “same four walls” problem again. Many Deputy Head advertisements specify having the experience of at least 2 schools. But making a sideways step just isn’t an option: I’ve passed that point now. I look at the profiles of some of the people I follow on Twitter, and I see the fantastic roles they have carved out for themselves. There are people who have been teaching for the same amount of time as me who are Executive Heads (Headship is NOT an option for me!) or who write books or travel the country, or even the world, speaking at conferences. I love being in the classroom, and I don’t think I’d be ready to leave that behind, but I think I’d like to challenge myself a little more. Clearly, I’m a Purple Learner: I don’t like to coast in the Comfort Zone and I relish a challenge. Just after the birth of my first child, I had to gain the NASENCO qualification. Not ideal timing, but I really enjoyed furthering my education. Maybe I could work towards a Masters? I don’t know. Would that be enough? I’m not saying I have itchy feet; I don’t. I’m in no hurry to leave my school. But I am at the point of thinking I want to make more of a difference. That sounds a bit egotistical, which is not me at all. I know I make a difference in my school, both in my classroom and beyond. I like teaching people, adults as well as children. I’m not saying I’m fantastic at teaching adults (last night’s INSET is a shining example – as soon as I finished speaking, I would think of loads of things I should have said), but I enjoy it. My problem is that I don’t have one field of expertise. I know a lot about a lot of things, but not enough about one. I enjoy talking about computing and technology; I’m enjoying (in a warped sort of way) carving the way for us in assessment, but I’m no expert about either. But then, I love teaching. The pride I felt after being observed yesterday was incredible. I’m good at teaching… am I an expert in that? And even if I was, what do I do with that? Lecturing? Not sure about that – I’m not so old that I don’t remember how we acted as students in our lectures. I just don’t know. Add into the equation the fact that I have a young family and want to spend quality time with them: the questions and answers get even more complicated.

Ever since I was a very small child, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I still do. But now, I think I’m reaching a crossroads. I  have to think very carefully about which path I choose. I just don’t know what the signposts say yet.

Family, parents

Parents’ Evening from the other side

Tonight is Parents’ Evening. Not for me as a teacher, but as a parent. It is T’s second parents’ evening in year 1: the first was a bit of a disaster. Being those awkward parents who couldn’t make any of the allotted times, we had arranged to see T’s teacher after school one day. However, as the other children trotted out of the classroom and onto the playground, we were waved over and told that T was currently being sick with his head in a bucket. As it was the only time we could make, we carried on (obviously after all vomiting had ceased), conducting the meeting sitting on the floor with a (clean) bucket next to us, just in case. Not the ideal way to hold a meeting, admittedly, but it did take some of the pressure off.

As a teacher, I find it really hard to be sitting on the other side of the table. I’ve had to talk to many parents in my time who are teachers. Some make the job very easy and just talk about their child like others who aren’t in the profession. But there are others who like to make their “status” very clear (“Oh, don’t do yourself down, dear, you weren’t just a teacher, you were Head of Department!” is quite possibly my favourite line EVER!) and ask lots of awkward teacher questions. We all know we have a brief inward groan when we see those names come up on the schedule. So, tonight is going to be difficult. There are lots of questions that I want to ask. But I want to ask these as a parent, not as a teacher. Usually, I would leave it to MNVTH to ask these questions: he’s good at being a little bit awkward! But he knows the teacher outside of the parent/teacher relationship, which makes the whole confrontation issue that little bit harder. It’s hard not to make comparisons with my own school. I realise that every school is different and that policies vary, but the only point of reference I have is where I work. I don’t want to be that parent who talks about herself and her job: those parents really drive me mad. And then, of course, there is the relationship I mentioned earlier between MVNTH and the teacher. They have many other things to talk about beside T. At least this time, we have a 10 minute deadline to stick to (always useful for those awkward parents, I find). There won’t be time for casual chit chat, but I just hope there is time for me to bring up my queries. I don’t want to be that parent who has the door opened for them because they won’t stop talking (MVNTH take note here – the door being opened is DEFINITELY the cue to leave!).  Fortunately, all is well with T at school.  I’d be rubbish at dealing with real problems.

Being a teaching parent does have its advantages: you can read between the lines of what the teacher says, you can crack the teacher code, but with that advantage comes the huge list of parents that you don’t want to be like! I know full well that all of the teachers will be talking in the staff room tomorrow morning about the parents they’ve seen tonight, regaling each other with tales of who was lovely, who was a good laugh, who was a complete nightmare and which ones caused trouble. I know which categories I don’t want to be in tomorrow morning… wish me luck!

Observations

With experience comes confidence

This week has made me realise what it is really like to be an experienced teacher. I’ve been in this job now for 15 years, and when I think back to the nervous NQT I was all those years ago, I can’t honestly believe how far I’ve come. Yesterday, I had to do a “five minute’s notice” assembly. As I tried to think of something to say while doing my register (a multi-task too far, I have to say!), I was reminded of an assembly I did years ago. It was just after I got married, 8 years ago, so I must have done assemblies before that, but I have clearly blocked them from my memory. I had spent ages making a PowerPoint presentation and lots of props. The assembly went well, I remember that much, but I also remember the nerves and huge amount of preparation that came before it. If you had told me 15 years ago that I would wander into a room full of 250 children and make stuff up on the spot, I would have laughed at you. That’s the beauty of experience: the bank of knowledge and stories you have built up becomes enormous, and you can pull all kinds of things out of the hat.

This morning, I had a literacy observation. A regular part of the job, but having been on maternity leave for most of last year, it seems like an extraordinarily long time since I have been observed. I was also being observed by a close friend (She’s the literacy leader, and this is the first time she has ever observed me) and the new head. The only times he has been in my classroom have been where there are no children and I’ve been doing inappropriate things like standing on tables. I felt I really ought to be making a good impression. Again, thinking back to my younger years (my goodness, I sound old now!), there would usually have been a sleepless night and at least one bout of vomiting. This morning, I will admit to a slight flutter of a butterfly, but this was because I was taking a risk by introducing them to Slow Writing, and I really hoped they would approve of it. But there was certainly no lack of sleep last night and my breakfast stayed put. With experience comes the knowledge and security in your skills: I know I’m a pretty good teacher, I know my stuff in literacy and I have my class just where I want them. All of those niggling doubts that I had as a less experienced teacher left me a few years ago. I think the time I really noticed this was when we had our last Ofsted and I had a “discussion” with the Inspector following my observation. I justified everything I did and could provide convincing counter arguments for everything he suggested. NQT me, and even the me who went through our previous inspections, would have nodded meekly and accepted what was said, even though on the inside I would have been screaming at him.

This evening, I delivered an INSET to the whole staff, which a colleague and I prepared this afternoon. We were still busily stapling handouts together as the staff were coming in. NQT me would have laughed (or vomited) at the thought of this ever happening. As the knowledge builds, so does the confidence. I had the safety net of knowing the subject well, and of knowing I had the technical ability to solve problems as they occurred. NQT me would never have had the self-belief to do this. I remember, as a keen new member of staff, agreeing to be a part of the PTFA. I also remember sitting there saying nothing, as I didn’t think I had anything to say that would be worth listening to. So much so, that a colleague and I went to the pub before one particular meeting, and no-one noticed as we giggled our way through it in the corner. Nowadays, I find it difficult to keep quiet in meetings (probably to the despair of the rest of the staff) because I know that I have valuable contributions to make.

Not everyone would have gone into this job being the quiet, shy(ish) person that I was. But even the most confident of people can’t compensate for all the knowledge and skills that experience brings.

Curriculum

Inspired writing

“Boudicca was a tall woman, assassinating everyone on the battle field. She would wield a sword and a spear. Every day, her army would increase by dozens and millions. It was as if her soul was consumed by the darkness and she would not stop until her empire was global. Her heart was a black hole and her soul was armoured to the point of indestructability. She was ruthless: she would sacrifice half her army to win a battle.”

C, Year 4.

Yesterday, my children were asked to write a description of Boudicca in their literacy lesson. We have spent ages focussing on so many of the technical elements that the children don’t get the time to think about the words. So, yesterday was an opportunity for the children to show off their vocabulary, choosing the very best words they could for their work. My goodness, did they rise to the challenge. I have to say, the quantity of work produced by the children wasn’t as much as usual, but they made the most of the chance to show off. Once I started writing out their “wow words” to put on the wall, the stakes were raised even higher. It turned into a competition for some, vying to find the best word.

The young man who produced the piece above (we’ll call him C) is a bit of a reluctant writer. He likes to ponder, so much so that he often doesn’t have time left to write. He gets himself in a state if he doesn’t know what to write, and falls into a downward spiral of negativity which usually ends in tears. He’s a bright boy, with amazing general knowledge, but he often has a classic case of writer’s block. But something yesterday clearly resonated with him. The spelling wasn’t great, and the odd full stop was missing, but his head was down for the entire lesson, pausing only to share word after fantastic word.

For the first time, we had introduced the concept of Purple Learners in the lesson. I had asked the children to rate their effort from 0-10 and to say whether they were in the comfort, challenge or panic zone. Amazingly, C gave himself a truly well deserved 10, after having spent the whole lesson in the challenge zone. Yesterday’s task just showed what can be achieved when a child is completely engaged in his task.  However, while C thought this task was amazing, others struggled. It is never going to be possible for every task to suit every child. This is where it is important to know your children: for them to be engaged, they need to be enjoying the task, so you need to suit as many of them as possible. And for those whom the task doesn’t suit, they need to be supported. Strategic use of adults can help to praise and motivate those who might be lacking enthusiasm. It’s amazing what some recognition, a smile or a sticker can do to help with a struggling child’s self-esteem and to get them back on track. Knowing C, I have a feeling he might struggle more with tomorrow’s Slow Write, as he finds regimented structure difficult (in more ways than just his writing). I want to continue the high he will have from reading the comments on his work (and from being Star Writer), so I will make sure that I focus on is group for the lesson. I hope that C will realise the potential I have been telling him about for weeks – perhaps I will carry on my Roman-related writing for just a little longer!

Curriculum

The value of enrichment

Today was a fantastic first day back for me. After the usual literacy and numeracy lessons this morning, I had a great afternoon to look forward to: a workshop with Professor Simon from the Blunderbus theatre company, followed by a PE lesson taught by students from Hartpury College. Great lessons to look forward to, but without actually teaching them! With some classes I’ve taught in the past, this afternoon could have been a source of sheer dread, but I had every confidence in my children that all would go well this afternoon. It did. We pranced around as horses pulling a Roman chariot, visited the Roman gods and built a time machine, then trekked off onto the playground into the bitter, cold wind for some running around and netball. The whole class had a whale of a time. All of them. Even the young lady who hates drama and PE with a passion. This could have been her worst nightmare, but even she made it through the afternoon smiling. I was amazed when I thought back over the afternoon and realised that she had volunteered her services in the drama workshop and stood at the front of the class dressed as Poseidon. A huge breakthrough. She put her hand up to answer questions all afternoon, crept down the corridor with everyone else, pretended to be a cog in the time machine and rode an imaginary mini donkey around the hall. This young lady has the regular disadvantage (or huge advantage, in her eyes) of missing PE most weeks as she goes to an intervention group and so has got out of the habit of taking part. PE or drama lessons therefore seem to come as a bit of a shock to her. Not today, it seems. The PE lesson was just as successful. After a few tears and a fairly harsh word or two from me, she got into her stride and joined in. She again volunteered to take part, throwing the ball to others as they ran past and offered to be “it” in a chasing game. What is more, she did all of this with a huge smile on her face.

Mum was suitably impressed when I told her at the end of the day, and so was I. So why today? Why join in? The adults leading the session were engaging (particularly Professor Simon!), but to say that was the reason would imply my lessons were dull – I’m not prepared to accept that! The other children were enthusiastic, but again, to say that was the reason would cast further aspersions over my lessons. The children are generally enthusiastic in my lessons too. I can only assume it was the sheer novelty value of having other teachers and a desire to impress them. While the drama workshop was (sadly) a one-off today, the Hartpury students are with me for several weeks. I shall do my utmost to try and change the timetable around to enable my reluctant young lady to join us every week to see how she responds. I hope that the enthusiasm of Professor Simon, Alex and Georgia (my Hartpury friends) have shown this lovely girl what I have so far failed to do: that drama and PE can be fun, and that actually, she’s pretty good at them. I’m all for getting outside agencies to come into school to provide new and enriching experiences for all, but if they can even provide a boost of confidence for those who need it, then the experiences are all the more worthwhile.

Curriculum, Learnpad, Observations, Technology

Learnpad vs iPad

I’m not a computing leader, just someone with a very keen interest in technology. As a school, we have a PC in each classroom, a Computing Suite with both PCs and laptops, 3 trolleys full of out of date and partially defunct laptops for class use, a few iPads (in KS1) and a class set of Learnpads. I’ve written before about how much I love the Learnpad, but the time has come as a school for us to make a decision. The trolleys full of laptops were purchased many years ago and are no longer fit for purpose, so some kind of replacement needs to be purchased.

The choice seems to be whether to purchase a class set of iPads or another trolley full of Learnpads. It’s a difficult decision, as obviously the financial implication for the school will be rather large. The trolley full of Learnpads lives outside my classroom door, and my year group love to use them. Since my last blog about them, I know at least 2 other year groups have ventured down my corridor to collect the trolley, but that’s it. The staff are still scared of them: luckily, we have training scheduled for our staff meeting this week, so all of that could be about to change. In my opinion, there needs to be some insistence by the SLT that staff use them at least once in class this term, otherwise the impetus to use them will be lost once again. It’s not logical for us to even consider purchasing more if those we have aren’t being used.

In my house, we often debate the advantages of Learnpads versus iPads. I’m an Android Learnpad user, MVNTH is a huge fan of the iPad. As yet, we haven’t reached a conclusion as to which is best, but here are some of the points we have argued.

App availability

There are clearly thousands of iOS apps available and regularly promoted on Twitter. There are many teachers sharing incredibly inventive ways of using the apps on iPads. I’m always exrtremely jealous of the lessons and activities I see people using. Mark Anderson, amongst others, shares ideas on #appsmash to satisfy a huge range of learning objectives. While there are bloggers and tweachers sharing Android equivalents, my Twitter feed seems to be predominantly Apple centred. The Learnpad store does have many good apps available in it, and schools can select some themselves to make them easier for teachers to find. However, adding Android apps yourself can be a challenge: I have just spent over an hour trying to work out how to add them via the Google Play Store. I have figured it out, I think, but whether the apps will appear on my lessons in school tomorrow remain to be seen.

App organisation

The Learnpad wins for me here. If a child uses an iPad, they have access to all of the apps installed on it: the ultimate temptation for some. However, the Learnpad enables teachers to just give the children access to the apps or websites they want, ensuring they remain focussed on the task they have been given. This is especially important for younger children, who inadvertently exit apps and end up somewhere completely different. I like the way you send out different lessons to the Learnpads and can have different children working on different tasks. I have lessons set up for my maths passports which we use from time to time: the children scan the QR codes for their passport and away they go.

Ease of use

For me, I find the Learnpad easy to use. I have spent enough time working with it to understand where to find menus and how to overcome problems. However, staff might have iPads at home, as might the children, so they would be familiar with them. The Learnpad can be very daunting at first, which is a huge worry for staff. What is important to consider is the investment the school has already made. We already own 32 Learnpads for the children and one per year group for the teachers. We are investing more time and money into training. Having both iPads and Learnpads available might just cause confusion, which could result in neither being used. I think either tablet would be best being used exclusively rather than trying to flit between the two.

Security for the children

The Learnpad has inbuilt security online, so that children can only access websites added by the class teacher. This is a brilliant feature, although it does have drawbacks. Any links that you want the children to access from a page have to be whitelisted, which is time consuming, or else the Learnpad needs to be unlocked, which defeats the object of the online security feature. A feature that I particularly like is the class dashboard – the children’s Learnpads can all be monitored from a computer and can be controlled – they can be frozen, paused or muted, either individually or as a class, at any time. It’s a very “Big Brother is watching you” type feature, but I have found it really useful. It only needs one child to be caught out doing something wrong to ensure that none of the others ever dare to try. A supply teacher was teaching a lesson in my classroom using the Learnpads. I just happened to log on to the website on the other side of the school and found one of my boys had logged on as a rather inappropriate name. It just so happened that I was working with the Computing Leader (who is also the Deputy Head) at the time, so we both paid my class a little visit. It goes without saying that their Learnpad etiquette is now impeccable!

Using the tablet for demonstration

Both can be used on an interactive whiteboard, but for the Learnpad, it is a free feature of the website. Any of the Learnpads can be accessed at any time and shown on the whiteboard, which is brilliant for demonstrations and showing work. My main concern with the Learnpads is that our computers aren’t up to the job: setting up a demonstration on some of them takes several minutes (with the newer computers, it’s instant) and the connection can be unreliable. In a recent staff meeting, I was demonstrating using Evernote to create our portfolios of work when the connection was lost: my demonstration froze and I ended up showing people on the tiny Learnpad screen. Clearly not a fault of the tablet or the website, but something to consider all the same. The same computers also won’t allow the “handout” facility – sending out documents or files to individual Learnpads – as the operating systems are too old. The iPad can be shown on the whiteboard, but either through an Apple TV box or an Air Server, both of which cost money and could be cost prohibitive. The iPad could be hard wired to the computer, but would need both visual and audio cabling, which is not ideal. This would be a further cost implication for us if we were to buy a class set of iPads: it’s not essential to be able to connect to the whiteboard, but a definite advantage.

Printing work

The iPad seems to win here. If you have the right kind of printer and the right password, you can print directly from it. Easy. With the Learnpads, though, it’s more difficult. Maybe it’s just our set up at school – I don’t know enough about it to know whether direct printing is possible, but for us, it is a challenge. The children have to “hand in” their work, which sends it to the Learnpad website. I then have to print or save each piece of work separately from my computer. The children very quickly got to grips with how to hand in, but my part of the job takes time. It just makes life a little more difficult as the work often ends up being printed after the lesson and thenA takes time to give out. Not a big deal, admittedly, but an inconvenience all the same.

For me, the decision for our school seems a straightforward one: we should buy more Learnpads. While they might not be as commonplace as the iPads, there are certainly an awful lot of advantages with them. Given the right training, support, and eventually, confidence, I am sure that all children will be given access to quality lessons using them to enhance their learning.

Observations

The laid back swan

As half term draws to an end and I start to contemplate the mountain of work I have inevitably left until the last minute, I am reminded of the many times I hear people comment on my organisational skills. Apparently, I am incredibly calm, organised and well prepared.
To some (quite large) extent, this is true. I always have my plans completed on time or even ahead of schedule, my masters of resources are printed off at home the night before (ink permitting, of course!) ready for me to copy them on the way past the photocopier as I come in first thing in the morning. Emails are replied to promptly and jobs that need completing for others are done almost straight away. Hence this illusion of organisation. But there is an underlying secret that not many are aware of: I’m not actually as organised as people think. I’ve got marking to do from the last science topic, I took down my maths working wall as we changed topics but I’ve put nothing back up in its place. I’ve got loads of little jobs that need doing and have done for ages, but I just don’t have the time. It’s all about 2 things: priorities and acting.
In this crazy profession of ours, how we present ourselves is vital: in front of the children, in front of the parents, in front of staff. The jobs that need doing for others are always the ones I do first: I can’t hold up other staff because I haven’t been organised enough to reply to a resource request or to type up parents evening notes for them. The report comments for the children in my teaching partner’s class will be completed well ahead of time, even though I may well be proof reading mine at the 11th hour. Organisation equals competence for a lot of people, and if they see a competent colleague, they will have confidence in them. I read around the subject of assessment, so that if colleagues ask me questions, I can answer them. Again, all part of the competence act. Some of them will be reading this, so I need to reassure them that I’m not a complete shambolic mess underneath it all: far from it. But I think what helps me to have a (mostly) calm exterior even though I have lots to do is the attitude I have towards my to-do list. It will get done. It will get done in time. But it won’t necessarily get done straight away. I was going to use the famous swan analogy to explain it all- gliding along on the surface and paddling furiously underneath, but I’m not entirely sure that works for me. I’m more relaxed than that. I work hard, damn hard, but I’m not paddling away furiously to get it done. Clearly I’m a laid back swan, elegantly gliding on the surface (I can hear the guffaws of my friends and colleagues now. ‘Elegant’ isn’t a word often associated with me!) and kicking hard but not busting a gut under the water. We can’t do it all immediately. It doesn’t work. That’s when teachers end up working themselves into the ground. Write a list, prioritise it and then get on with it. Don’t spend hours agonising over things, don’t procrastinate and just get the jobs done.

Swan image courtesy of https://reddirtpics.wordpress.com/page/23/